“Voter intimidation”: Trump floats “illegal” plan to deploy law enforcement to polling sites

Trump goes on Fox News in the middle of the Democratic Convention, threatens to send in cops on Election Day

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published August 21, 2020 11:50AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | mail in ballot (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump | mail in ballot (Getty Images/Salon)

President Donald Trump on Thursday pledged to send law enforcement officers to polling sites on Election Day, but some experts say such a move would be illegal.

Trump was interviewed by Fox News host Sean Hannity ahead of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Hannity asked Trump whether he had the "ability" to monitor for potential fraud in the upcoming election, even though both in-person and mail-ballot fraud are virtually non-existent.

"We're going to have everything," Trump responded. "We're going to have sheriffs, and we're going to have law enforcement. And we're going to have hopefully U.S. attorneys, and we're going to have everybody and attorney generals."

The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee have long been working to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to police "voter fraud" in November after a 2018 federal court ruling lifted a decades-long consent decree barring the national Republican Party from poll watching after it was accused of trying to "intimidate" minority voters with off-duty law enforcement officers in 1982. The decree had been repeatedly extended after courts found repeated instances of voter intimidation.

Phillip Atiba Goff, a Yale professor who co-founded the Center for Policing Equity, said Trump's pledge to dispatch law enforcement officers to polling sites was was a "commitment for state sponsored voter intimidation."

Former NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said that the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a longtime civil rights leader, was "nearly killed by the same kind of voter intimidation."

Legal experts called Trump's plan "illegal."

"Federal law expressly prohibits any federal officer from sending 'troops or armed men' to any polling place 'unless such force be necessary to repel armed enemies of the United States,'" Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, tweeted.

Vladeck told CNN that the president has no authority to dispatch local law enforcement officials to monitor polling sites, though his campaign could hire off-duty officers as the RNC did in 1982.

Such a move would certainly draw a legal challenge from Democrats. Election lawyer Marc Elias, who frequently represents Democrats in high-profile election cases, vowed that Trump would not send in any officers "without a legal fight."

Trump, who is trailing badly in the polls, has repeatedly sought to sow doubt in the election, pushing debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not say Wednesday whether Trump would accept the results of the election.

"The president has always said he'll see what happens and make a determination in the aftermath," she did say

Trump similarly told Fox News last month that he would "have to see" about accepting the results of the election.

"I'm not a good loser," Trump said. "I don't like to lose."

"The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged," he baselessly asserted Monday despite trailing Biden by about nine points in national polls.

Voting rights groups vowed to fight Trump's attempts to "intimidate and stop people from voting."

"We've suspected this would happen and here it is," Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said. "But it won't work and this is going to be challenged."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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